Monday, August 22, 2016

What is the Goal of Camp?

It was halftime, and we were behind. It was my junior year on the high school football team, and we had to win in order to make the playoffs. We could not seem to get our offense going, and our team’s offensive coordinator stood before our sweaty, exhausted team. He had designed a new play special for this game, and we had run it twice during the first half. We lost yardage both times. He methodically drew the play again on the chalkboard, indicating the blocking assignments. The offensive and defensive players were represented with a series of X’s and O’s. He took a step back from the perfectly designed play, a mixture of disbelief and frustration on his face, as he said, “I don’t understand how that’s not a touchdown every time.” My friend and teammate snorted under his breath, “That’s because those X’s don’t move, coach.”

I have met some ministry colleagues that think along the lines of my high school football coach. If we do this and this and this, then we will automatically get our desired outcome. This desired outcome is often an emotional conversion experience or a lifelong disciple of Jesus. Camping ministry is certainly not immune to this formulaic thinking. In fact, camp might be more susceptible than other ministries. There is a certain rhythm to the camp week that often leads toward a crescendo on the last evening. Directors market their camps by promising life-changing adventures or mountaintop experiences. Some evangelical camps keep track of how many young people accept Christ during their camp experiences.

Stop. Camp is not a magic formula. It is not a fool-proof play that guarantees a touchdown every time.

My high school football coach failed to grasp the fundamental truth that the other team’s defenders are not X’s on a chalkboard. They are people. They move. They do things that we cannot anticipate. Besides, there is no play that can be expected to score a touchdown every single time. The goal of a single play is not to score a touchdown but rather to make forward progress.

Young people who come to camp are not X’s and O’s, either. They are people. They are unique individuals who come from a diversity of backgrounds and family situations. We cannot sketch out some plan for how we are going to change people’s lives. Doing so is to deny the God-given uniqueness of each precious individual and to deny the unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit.

It is time to move away from ministry formulas and recognize that our ministries with young people are part of a much larger ecology of faith formation. We are part of a team that includes pastors, caring members of congregations, parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers, and even eccentric football coaches. Camps are special and important ministries. But they are not responsible for changing lives. God does that. Sometimes, God uses the special environment of camp. Sometimes, not so much.

Our emerging findings from the Effective Camp ResearchProject indicate that there is a unique ministry model present in the camp environment. This model consists of 5 fundamental characteristics: intentional relationships, participatory learning, emotional/physical safety, difference from the home environment, and faith interwoven throughout the experience. These characteristics make camp a unique model of ministry that the church desperately needs. But our research demonstrates that this model does not cause change. We do not score a touchdown every time. Why? We are working with real people, and each individual experiences the camp model differently. It is certainly true that many participants have significant or even life-changing experiences. We should celebrate these instances and continue telling the stories. The camp model provides space for these experiences to happen, but changing lives is not our goal.

This begs the question, WHAT IS THE GOAL OF CAMPING MINISTRY? I suggest we return to the 5 fundamental characteristics to answer that question.

The goal of camp is to facilitate relational encounter.
The goal of camp is to provide safe space.
The goal of camp is to engage in participatory activities.
The goal of camp is to encourage experiences that are different from home.
The goal of camp is to live a life caught up with and dependent on faith in God.

When we consider these 5 characteristics as goals, we get closer to understanding our role as camping ministers. We are here to minister to real people in unique spaces. This ministry seeks nothing else than true relationship – with the self, with the other person at camp, and with Jesus Christ.

Learn more about the project at effective!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

This Negative Summer Could Use a Dose of Camp!

There is a lot of hateful talk on our television screens and on our social media sites of late. We need camps to teach us how to be respectful to one another.

Our society is experiencing an unhealthy dosage of disrespectful dialogue and rhetoric of despair. Simply put, public figures are being rude and mean to each other. This affects how we interact with one another, especially with those who disagree with us. In the most extreme circumstances, we have witnessed disagreements or misunderstandings expressed violently.

Camps provide atmospheres of hope and positive dialogue with others. This does not mean that camps are idyllic or utopian communities. There are real problems, disagreements, and disrespect. At camp, however, these situations become opportunities to learn about others and their beliefs. People from different backgrounds (whose parents may vote for different political candidates) join together in intentional Christian community. They learn to forgive. They learn to see the face of the other and come alongside them in cases of sadness or despair. They get treated with respect, and they learn to treat others respectfully.

Recent research shows that these experiences of living in respectful and hopeful camp communities affect the campers after they return home. Participants sometimes describe camp as a “bubble” or a retreat from the real world. Camp often feels that way because it is set apart and genuinely different from most other environments that young people experience. Simply getting our children away for a week or more to a safe and positive environment is enough reason to send them to camp. Parents that completed a survey for the Effective Camp Research Project were largely content if their children came home safe and happy. Most had few other expectations of the camp experience. However, they found that the positive environment of camp continued to affect their children weeks after they returned home! If camp is a bubble, it is incredibly permeable.

Parents were asked what changes they have seen in their children in the weeks since the camp experience. Of the 370 parents who responded to the survey, 92% agreed that camp clearly had an impact on their children. The most common change that parents observed was that their children were more self-confident. The next most common response was that their children were more upbeat, positive, or happier since camp ended. The third most common was that their children were more caring, considerate, and respectful of others (including their siblings and parents!).  Most of these responses were tied together with observations of increased faith commitments or practices.

“My introvert who can sometimes be afraid of new experiences came home talking about how he couldn’t wait to go back next year. He was singing songs (VERY rare!) and talking about making friends. Most importantly, he said the experience helped him feel closer to God.” ­(Camp Lutherdale parent)

“She always comes back saying ‘please and thank you.’ She reminds us all to use kind words and she tries much harder to help out and be pleasant. She also reads her Bible a lot.” (Sugar Creek Bible Camp parent)

“They have been more happy, more caring and concerned towards others. They were left wanting to learn more about God and his word.” (Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Camp parent)

These are just a few examples of the comments parents made about changes they saw in their children. Parents loved to see their children more upbeat and confident after camp. They loved to hear them singing around the house. They loved to catch them praying, reading their Bibles, or asking for the family to say grace before a meal. The experience not only affected the attitude of the child. The positive effects extended to their family members, affecting the entire household.

The experiences we have and the language to which we are exposed affects how we interact with others. Hope is contagious. Smiles are contagious. Those who have been in the positive, hopeful environment of a Christian camp community are noticeably kinder, upbeat, and respectful after the experience. During this summer of 2016, when we are constantly barraged by negative political ads and the flags seem to be constantly half-mast because of violent acts, our young people and families could use some positive, hopeful environments.

There is still room, but you have to act now. Sign your child up for camp. Sign your family up for family camp!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Only 12 Campers??

He was not quite in a panic, but there was clear concern in his voice when my brother called on Sunday afternoon. He had just dropped off my niece for her first week ever of summer camp at Bethel Horizons near Madison, WI. He had met the director and had a nice conversation, during which he learned that his daughter was one of only 12 campers going to camp that week. What should he do? He had envisioned a large group of energetic young people gathered around the campfire singing songs. 12 simply was not critical mass. He wanted his daughter to have a great experience, and he was worried that such a small number of campers would be disappointing for her. He did not want her to have a lousy first ever week of camp. She might never want to go again. Should he pick her up and bring her home?

My brother is not alone in thinking that a positive camp experience is dependent, in part, on the excitement and energy generated by large numbers of people. I spoke with a pastoral colleague (and passionate camp supporter) later in the week and told him about the low camper number. “What do you do with 12 campers?” he wondered.

My response was the same to both of them. I told them that the week had the potential to be a singularly amazing experience. I have long been convinced that the power of the camp experience is found in personal relationships formed as part of a small-group experience (see previous post). The small number of campers could facilitate personal encounters among all of the campers and summer staff members in ways not possible when there were over 100 campers present and the staff was stretched thin.

In the case of Bethel Horizons, my conviction that my niece would have a positive experience was not simply theoretical. I have led staff training sessions and college classes on their site. More importantly, I know their staff, and I think they are top-notch. I was confident that they had hired good summer staff members. I started imagining some of the possibilities that excellent summer staff members might come up with for a small group of campers. I smiled. It was going to be a good week, I assured my brother.

He sent me a text on Friday: “FYI just picked her up after her camp week. She had so much fun she wants to go back for another week this summer.”

Those of you who have picked up a child after camp know how those conversations go. My niece spoke on and on about how much fun she had. She made a great new friend, and they had exchanged contact information. She loved her counselor and the staff. She got to do tons of hiking, the high ropes course, and rappelling off a cliff. She sang songs about God and learned new table graces.

The summer camp experience is not about big numbers or epic large-group games. It is about people and relationships. My niece formed positive relationships with other campers and adult mentors. She did this in a loving environment framed with Christian faith practices. As an uncle, I am thankful for another great camp experience! I am thankful for the people of Bethel Horizons. Their numbers may be down, but they remain one of our great summer camps. Learn more about them HERE!

There is still room. Have you signed up your child for summer camp???

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Creating Safe Spaces

Summer camp began this week at thousands of camps across the country on the same day as the worst mass-shooting in American history. It is a great testament to the enduring strength of camp that parents of millions of young people still feel comfortable sending them away to camp for a week or more. We constantly hear about the dangers in this world. The massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12 only compounds these feelings of insecurity. That nightclub was supposed to be a safe space for a group of people that faces consistent hostility and prejudice. Even our safe spaces are under attack. Why, then, should parents send their children away from their watchful gaze?

Summer camp can teach us a great deal about the value of safe spaces and how to effectively create them. The Effective Camp Research Project has uncovered 5 fundamental characteristics of Christian summer camp (see previous post), and one of them is camp is a safe space. Physical safety is the most obvious form of safety, especially in light of the terrible crime in Orlando and other acts of violence in our society. However, emotional and spiritual safety are equally important in the camp environment. Here is how a few campers described the camp experience in focus groups last summer:

“I feel like no one will judge you because of what you believe here.” (Male camper, Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Camp, WI)
“Back at home it’s different. Here, you don’t have to be someone else.” (Male camper, Camp Lutherlyn, PA)
 “My friends at camp are so much nicer than my friends at school. They let me be myself.” (Female camper, Sugar Creek Bible Camp, WI)
“I feel really safe here. Like, I would go outside of what I normally do, and I feel safe doing it here.” (Male camper, Camp All Saints, TX)

These words highlight the deep longings of young people across the nation. Many feel that they are constantly on trial, as if they are being judged by everyone around them. They feel pressure to conform to some ideal that seems false to them, so they end up feeling like they have to hide their true selves at school, home, or even church. Young people consistently describe camp as a place where they can be themselves, a place where they will be accepted without fear of judgment. These feelings of safety allow them to explore their identity and give them confidence to step outside of their comfort zones. Camps do not become safe spaces by accident.

The set-apart nature of camps (often in beautiful outdoor settings) contributes to the feeling of security. It is a physical space that is intentionally different from home environments, so campers have the chance to consider their identity and place in the world separate from the expectations and pressures of their everyday lives. They are embedded in an intentional Christian community, which is the primary facilitator of the safe space. The camp community builds trust. Campers across the country described their camp groups in terms of family and camp itself as a second home. They genuinely cared for one another. This happens because everyone works at it. They eat, sleep, pray, play, and worship together. They work through disagreements and conflicts, forgive one another, and they have highly participatory experiences together.

I have heard some people critique camp for ignoring the messy realities of the world. This is a serious charge. It is true that camps often serve as enclaves of safety where participants can have a respite from the hostility they experience or hear about away from camp. But camp is not a place where people bury their heads in the sand. Campers come from broken homes and abusive homes. They come from places of ridicule and exclusion. Others come from places of great privilege. They do not forget these things when they come to camp. Rather, they bring them along. Camp is sometimes the first place where a young person feels safe to talk about an abusive home situation, doubts they have about their own faith, or questions they have about their sexual identity. Camp does not ignore the messy realities of the world but rather provides a safe space to encounter them.

One of the most important roles of Christian camps in our society is to provide a place of genuine encounter with those who are different. Campers are gathered into groups that would almost never choose to be together in a school or peer setting. Sometimes the diversity is limited to different social circles, but it more often includes differences of race, culture, economic class, sexual orientation, and religious tradition. As one boy from Lutherdale Bible Camp in WI put it, “You’re strangers. You don’t even know each other. And then, at the end of the week, you’re friends.” Friendships are powerful. They allow young people to look past labels and stereotypes in order to see the person in front of them as a beloved child of God. Camp is a safe place for young people to be themselves in the midst of a group of people that is very different from them, yet accepts them as part of God’s beautifully diverse creation.

I accept that our society needs places where specific sub-groups of people can gather and feel safe together. We need to ensure that places like the Pulse nightclub can remain places of safety. I firmly believe that one of the ways we can accomplish this is by providing safe spaces for genuine encounter with otherness. Summer camp can teach us a lot about these places. Camps must ensure that they are places of safety and inclusion for all people. I have seen it happen countless times, and it is happening right now at camps across the country. The transgender child and the one questioning her sexual identity gather around the campfire with the economically privileged child, the gifted athlete who is the most popular in the school, the child from an emotionally abusive home, and the child with cerebral palsy or aspergers syndrome. They get to know each other. They together mourn the tragedy in Orlando. They ask for forgiveness of their sins and are assured of God’s unwavering love for them. They go home more confident of who they are and more open to the blessed diversity of the humanity that is created in the image of God.

Send your child to camp. Seek places of genuine encounter. Open your eyes to see the humanity of the one who is different from you. Above all, show love for one another, as Christ has loved us.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

5 Fundamental Characteristics of Camp

Those of us who love camp think we know what it’s all about. The camp critics think the same thing. Ask around and you will hear all sorts of things about camp. Camp is life-changing. Camp is theologically shallow. Camp is a mountaintop experience. Camp offers a brief high that quickly fades. Camp is the only place where faith makes sense. Camp ruins kids for church. The list goes on. What if we laid aside our assumptions and seriously asked the question, what is camp and what does it do? Maybe we could get away from our bias that the camp we love does it better than all others. Maybe camp detractors could be convinced that one negative experience is not indicative of all camps.

A team of people on the Effective Camp Research Project got together to dig deeply into the camp experience. Our question: What is the impact of the one-week Christian summer camp experience on the lives of the primary participants and their supporting networks? The initial findings are encouraging, challenging, and illuminating.

Read about them right now at

We are finding that the camp experience has many positive impacts on participants and that these impacts extend to their supporting networks! Even more intriguing, we have isolated 5 characteristics that seem to be fundamental to the Christian summer camp experience. When these characteristics function together, we call it the camp model.
  1. Camp is RELATIONAL
  4. Camp is A SAFE SPACE
  5. Camp is FAITH CENTERED 
These have no set order or direction of influence. There is not one characteristic that is more important than the others. They function together in a dynamic interplay for each unique individual. A breakdown in a single characteristic is a breakdown of the entire camp model, and this can lead to interpretation of the entire experience as negative or even harmful to the camper.

Here is how the camp model functioned for one individual in our study:

"Her mom is going through a divorce. She was sad and anxious but wanted this camp experience. She made friends, learned how to pray, learned about faith and was uplifted and healed throughout the week. It was one of the best weeks of her life according to her: “I’m not depressed, my appetite is back, I believe I can make friends in a new school, I am closer to God.” This camp experience for her was the best!" (Camper parent)

Notice how this camper’s unique life circumstances combined with the camp model to facilitate the incredibly impactful experience that the parent describes. All 5 characteristics are present here, and if one had broken down, the entire experience would have affected her differently.

Some of the camp supporters out there might be simply nodding their heads and thinking that they already knew this stuff. If that is the case, GREAT! This should look and feel authentic to you. It is not new stuff to camp people who have been talking about these characteristics (or something like them) for years. However, we have never quite been able to articulate it this way. We can learn a great deal by stepping back and observing. Some would simply say of the above camper: “She had a life-changing experience!” Did she? Maybe, but those are our words, not hers. The experience clearly affected her in very significant and positive ways. We can say she grew in her self-confidence and sense of worth. We can say that she grew in her faith. We can say that she grew in her social confidence. These are real and incredibly significant impacts.

Only some of the campers have an experience that they might consider life-changing or a mountaintop experience. We do not need to promise that kind of an experience. In fact, it is misleading to do so. Our findings make it clear that the camp model does not cause change. Camp is not a magic formula! What camp does is facilitate positive impacts and open the possibility for changes.

We are learning so much about camp, and there is much more to come! Our research continues this coming summer, as we survey more than 1200 campers to find out more about the camp model and the impacts of the camp experience.

Follow the research and join the conversation:!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sign your Child up for Church Camp!

Spring is here. Christ is risen! Summer is fast approaching. Have you signed your children up for camp yet?

The word “camp” is now used to mean so many different things that my question may be confusing. The reality is that many kids are signed up for multiple programs that have the word “camp” in the title. I want to be clear that I have nothing against afternoon skill activities at the local YMCA or school (Basketball Camp, Science Camp, and the like). When I use the word, however, I mean overnight camp. I mean kids sleeping away from home with a community of people in an outdoor setting for several days in a row. This is a different experience from “day camp” programs.

There is a tendency to pack summer schedules so full of activities that parents cannot find room on the calendar for a week of summer camp. I understand this conundrum because I have two boys in late elementary school. My recommendation:

Make room. Make time.

The potential benefits of a week at summer camp far outweigh the consequences of missing a week of baseball or dance. Do not think of camp as one more thing to cram into the schedule but rather a much needed respite from the schedule itself. This includes valuable time away from the screens and technology that have come to dominate our children's lives. At the same time, camp is not a vacation. There is serious work happening in the playful environment of camp that opens the space for tremendous growth opportunities. We continue gathering more research that demonstrates how valuable the camp experience is for promoting greater independence, self-confidence, social skills, leadership, and faith commitment. We have more than isolated stories. We have verifiable evidence for the value of a week at summer camp.

We parents have two primary goals when it comes to our children. First, we want them to be safe. Second, we want them to grow into healthy adults. Our obsession with the first goal sometimes hinders the second. Camp helps us move towards both of these goals. Safety is the number one priority at every camp I have ever visited, and they all go to great lengths to keep their participants safe: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Camps are also great places for young people to develop life skills. I am not talking about basketball, soccer, or music. I am talking about independence, self-confidence, and taking ownership of their beliefs.

There are many different types of camps, and it may be a struggle to decide which camp to choose. Start with your church. Chances are, your congregation is connected to a quality summer camp. These church-supported camps are great options because they have been vetted by ministry professionals, share many of your values, offer opportunities for connection with others in your congregation, and likely have excellent pricing options for you, including financial assistance through your church. Nearly every church camp I have visited commits to ensuring that no child is turned away due to financial constraints. If money is tight, your child can still attend.

Church camps are also great options because they are less likely than other camps to fall into the trap of the fast-paced youth culture that emphasizes merit, achievement, and competition. Young people need space to be children and to explore who they are without the intense pressure and demands that they have become so accustomed to. The supportive community and nurturing environment at a Christian camp gives them a safe place to explore, learn, and grow.

Some people have the idea that Christian camps are bent on conversion and try to force young people into believing. This is not the case. It may be so at some Evangelical and independent (often for-profit) camps, but those affiliated with Christian denominations are focused on providing a nurturing Christian community. They will not pressure or scare your child into believing. On the contrary, they will provide space for your child’s questions and doubts that they may have felt uncomfortable voicing at home or church. This is healthy. We want your children to ask questions and feel free to express doubts. That is part of faith. It is part of life.

One more consideration when choosing a camp is to look for the ACA logo. Camps that are accredited through the American Camp Association (ACA) meet stringent industry standards. A camp that is not accredited may be a wonderful, safe camp, but make sure this is confirmed by fellow parents and church professionals. Accreditation is certainly not a requirement, but it should give you greater confidence in the camp.

Make time. Make camp a priority. Sign your child up now!

Need help finding camps affiliated with your church? Click one of these links:

Monday, February 1, 2016

4 Types of Mainline Protestant Camps

Christian camping ministry in the Mainline Protestant tradition is often broken down along denominational lines. We have Lutheran camps, Methodist camps, and so forth. These distinctions are not always helpful because camps have varying programmatic goals and ministry priorities. The camp director survey conducted as part of the Confirmation Project in fall 2014 reveals another way to think about the differences among our camps and conference centers.

One thing that is abundantly clear from the camp research that we have gathered thus far is that camps and retreat centers are effective catalysts for faith formation. Contrary to many anecdotal accounts, it is becoming clear that the residential camp experience has lasting effects on participants, and one of the clearest lasting effects is that camp participants tend to be more engaged in Christian community. This includes church attendance! They actually leave camp with a stronger desire to engage in congregational ministries. This highlights the importance of strong partnerships between camps and congregations.

A small portion of Mainline camps have a weak emphasis on faith formation in comparison to other camps, but these only account for about 7% of the total. The remaining 93% have a moderately strong or very strong emphasis on faith formation and Christian education that permeates all of their programs. The interesting and perhaps concerning reality is that not all of these camps have maintained strong ties to congregational ministries. Just as there is variation in the degree that camps emphasize faith, there is also variation in how strongly they identify with their denominational traditions and seek connection to congregations. Using both of these measurements reveals four types of Mainline Protestant camps:

1.     Camps with a weak connection to congregations/denominations and a low faith emphasis. Only 7% of camps fall into this category. They look very different from other Mainline camps and probably resemble secular camps to a large degree. They still may have worship, prayers, and even Bible study, though much less frequently than other camps. Faith practices are compartmentalized from other aspects of camp life.
2.     Camps with a moderate connection to congregations/denominations and a moderate faith emphasis. 22% of camps fall into this category. These camps do not show particularly strong connection to other ministries or particularly strong faith emphasis. Faith teachings and Christian practices are part of the camp program, but they are not given noticeably more emphasis than other aspects. Religion or, more often, “spirituality” is seen as an important piece of camp life, but it does not necessarily permeate all aspects of the program.
3.     Camps with a weak connection to congregations/denominations and a high faith emphasis. 29% of camps fall into this category. These camps are committed to faith formation, and Christianity permeates all aspects of camp programs. However, they deemphasize theological teachings specific to their denomination, and they have generally weak connections to congregational ministries. Camp directors are unlikely to have formal theological instruction, and clergy involvement is likely very low. The large number of camps fitting into this category is alarming because the camp experience does not stand alone as a singular life event. This category is a sign that the partnership between camps and congregations is weakening.
4.     Camps with a strong connection to congregations/denominations and a high faith emphasis. 42% of camps fall into this category. These camps exhibit high clergy involvement and strong connection to congregations in terms of philosophy and program. They appear to be strong partners in ministry with congregations and denominational leaders. They tend to emphasize Christian education and specific theological teachings/practices more so than the other camps. These camps most closely resemble the historical priorities of Christian camping ministry in the Protestant tradition. They see themselves as part of a larger ecology of faith formation, and they intentionally try to strengthen partnerships with other ministries.

The Christian camp, conference, or retreat experience does not stand on its own! It is necessarily part of a much larger ecology of faith formation. Denominational differences among camps are not always helpful distinctions. A type 3 Lutheran camp may not look Lutheran at all, though it may share many of the ministry priorities of a type 3 Episcopal camp. Understanding where our camps fall in terms of these 4 categories can help us understand their strengths and weaknesses. It can also help us make distinctions when we are talking about Christian camping ministry. Some clergy members, theologians, or parents level critiques at camping ministry as a whole because they are lumping all camps together. People base their assumptions on their experiences. There are clergy members who do not want to support camp and retreat ministries because they have experienced mostly type 1 or type 3 camps. We can tell a more complete story of Christian camping ministry. We can also seek greater connections between camps and congregations. I firmly believe that these connections are vital to the future of both camps and congregations, and I would love to see many more of our camps shift to the Type 4 piece of the pie.

Where does your camp fit into the mix?